How to Escape From a Car That’s Sinking Underwater

You've just driven your car into a river or over the side of a bridge into a lake. What can you do to save yourself? Read on to find out.

The mere thought of your car plunging off a bridge into the icy water below can send shivers down your spine. But with proper planning you can increase your chances of survival. Follow these tips to escape from a sinking vehicle from Jason Lyman, assistant chief of the Islamorada Fire & Rescue Department of Village of Islands, Florida.

1. Don’t panic.

Though it’s a terrifying situation to be sure, the key to making it out of a sinking car is to focus and keep your wits about you. Panicking will only waste time that you do not have.

2. Skip mobile communication.

Trying to call 911 to come and rescue you isn’t your best move because the responders probably won’t get there in time—and time is of the essence.

3. Unlock the doors.

If it’s dark, first turn on your interior lights then unlock your doors. A vehicle’s electronics system should work for some time after your crash.

4. Plot your escape.

Your car will stay afloat for a short time, so use this opportunity to escape. Remove heavy clothing, roll down your windows, and swim away as fast as you can. Do not worry about trying to save your purse, your wallet, or any other personal items; survival is the name of the game. Plus, if it is winter, your risk of hypothermia increases the longer you’re in the water. The quicker you can get out, the better.

5. Wait to open the door.

This sounds scary, but you won’t be able to open the door until the car is fully submerged: rising water puts too much pressure against it. Once the pressure inside has equalized, the doors should open, though sitting and waiting for this to happen can cause panic. Concentrate on your next move instead.

6. If you can’t open the door, break a window.

If the electrical system has already failed, you can try kicking the window out. It is wise to keep a tool like a centre punch or something similar accessible in your car at all times. Many of the products designed for breaking glass can also be used to cut your seat belt. Use it on your windows, not the windshield—it is laminated safety glass, and you won’t break through. Also, some newer vehicles have installed laminated glass on the sides, and/or thick window tinting may have the same properties. Familiarize yourself with the ins and outs of your car before there is an emergency.

7. Take a deep breath.

Once the water has risen to chin level, grip the steering wheel for leverage and take off your seat belt. Take a slow deep breath and hold it in.

8. Practice becomes perfect.

Rehearse this routine as you would a fire drill: this is another case where practice creates muscle memory. Ingrain these steps in your head so that you can save valuable time.

Next, check out 10 driving tips to stay safe in wet weather.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest